Fulton County Jail living conditions deteriorating

The Fulton County Jail’s main facility is located just a ten minute drive from Tech. All people facing charges are processed here. // Photo by Alex Dubé Student Publications

Located on 901 Rice St. NW,  just three miles away from Tech’s campus, the Fulton County Jail houses around 3,600 inmates, which is almost double their operational capacity. Despite growing public scrutiny, the jail’s facilities continue to deteriorate. 

Since Sept. 2022, the Rice St. facility has had 17 in custody deaths. They made headlines last year when inmate LaShawn Thompson was found unresponsive in his cell, covered in sores and bedbug bites. He passed away days later due to “severe neglect,” according to an autopsy report. The situation there has worsened to such a degree that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation into the jail and its conditions in July of this year. 

“The Department has found significant justification to open this investigation,” reads the DOJ press release, “including credible allegations that an incarcerated person died covered in insects and filth, that the Fulton County Jail is structurally unsafe, that prevalent violence has resulted in serious injuries and homicides and that officers are being prosecuted for using excessive force.”

Devin Franklin is the Southern Center for Human Rights’ (SCHR) Movement Policy Counsel, an organization that works to reduce mass incarceration through criminal justice reform. He spoke with the Technique about his experiences from the perspective of his current role and as a former public defender in the county.

“They have a leak from the roof that is constantly dripping,” says Franklin, “and instead of repairing it, they just keep putting empty trashcans under it to catch the water. This leak was there years ago when I was a public defender, and it is still there to my knowledge. If that was visible to the public, then you can only imagine
what the rest of the jail is like.”

Just over a month ago, former president Donald Trump was booked and processed at the Fulton County Jail due to his Georgia indictment charges. Shortly after, he publicly detested the conditions of the facility in a fundraising email to his supporters. 

“It’s worse than you could even imagine,” said Trump. “It’s violent. The building is falling apart. Inmates have dug their fingers into the crumbling walls and ripped out chunks to fashion over 1,000 shanks.” 

BBC estimates that Trump was in the jail for around 20 minutes, accompanied by a full security team. Other persons in custody are not so lucky. The Fulton County Jail is meant to be a temporary facility that detains individuals awaiting trial or sentencing or individuals serving small sentences, but many end up there for months or even years without being convicted. This is the root of the jail’s overcrowding issue, which only exacerbates its deplorable conditions. 

“Everyone who’s held in Fulton County Jail is being held pretrial,” says Franklin. “They should be able to expeditiously get to court and resolve their case… or be able bond out of the jail. We informed [the jail] that there are a lot of inmates in custody for a variety of reasons such as not having a trial date or not having bond placed, and these are factors that affect overcrowding.”

Coupled with overcrowding, the severity of the conditions at the Rice St. facility pose severe mental and physical health risks for its inmates. Dr. Amy D’Unger is the Interim Director and Associate Director of the GT Honors Program and a sociologist with an expertise in social policy and crime. She discusses the ramifications of this issue for inmates and the local community. 

“The great paradox of the criminal justice system is that, while the vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness — including substance addiction — do not get involved in crime, many of the people who are incarcerated are experiencing mental illness,” says D’Unger. “This is especially true in jails, which are the holding pen for people after arrest and before trial. … Jails tend to have more transient populations and fewer resources than prisons and often become “overflow housing” for the mentally ill, substance addicted, and/or homeless. … The conditions in an overcrowded jail — loud noises, violence, inadequate food, overcrowded conditions — can be particularly triggering from those suffering from mental illness.”

She adds that the jail’s lack of adequate medical resources and facilities is a root of the health issues that occur within the facility. 

“At Fulton County Jail, a private health care company, NaphCare, Inc., provides services, but the company is seeking to either terminate its contract or get a significant increase in pay because of the level of violence in the facility, including targeted at health care practitioners, [whose] contract was recently renewed over the summer. NaphCare itself has been the target of several lawsuits for negligence, including in the recent death of LaShawn Thomas, a schizophrenic inmate who died of severe neglect in September 2022,” says D’Unger. 

As the issue grows more severe each day, Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, who maintains jurisdiction over the jail, grows desperate to find a solution. He stated last month that his current plan is to farm around a thousand inmates to other facilities as far away as south Georgia or Mississippi. However, there has been no news of the plan’s enaction since the Sheriff’s statement. 

Both D’Unger and Franklin agree that this is a temporary solution that could end up causing more harm to the inmates than good. 

“I don’t know the specifics of this plan, but the Fulton County Jail is incredibly overcrowded. Moving some inmates to other jails could temporarily improve the conditions, but it’s not a long-term solution. Reducing the number of people in the jail by diverting those with mental health issues, substance abuse issues and a lack of housing/shelter into community-based treatment is a more viable long- term solution. … Most people in Fulton County Jail are poor — their families may not have the means to travel to see them in a jail that’s farther away. … Moving prisoners to other facilities is a short term bandage for a very gaping wound,” D’Unger says. 

“Potentially moving [persons in custody] has implications under the Sixth amendment right to counsel. Clients need to be able to meet often to review discovery with their counsel. … This frustrates the ability to develop relationships between client and attorney,” Franklin says. 

Fulton County has yet to offer a more permanent solution to address the human rights violations occurring at the jail, but it is likely that the results of the DOJ’s investigation will affect their efforts in the coming months.

“Jails are ill-suited to provide rehabilitation. To the extent that rehabilitation as opposed to punishment is part of the US criminal justice system, it’s much more likely to happen in prison than in jail. … I don’t think any rehabilitation is happening in local jails like Fulton County. I think warehousing of the poor and mentally ill is happening,” D’Unger says.

The Futon County Jail retains jurisdiction over a large portion of Atlanta’s metropolitan area. If any Tech student is arrested in Fulton County, they will most likely be processed through Rice St. and could be detained there for an extended period of time.